In the footsteps of Eli Cohen

Eli Cohen became a household  name in Israel in early 1965. He was an Israeli spy in Syria who was captured by the Syrian security officers while transmitting to Israel. Following his trial, he was found guilty, sentenced to death and eventually hanged on 18 May 1965

As a tribute to him, his legacy and contributions to the Jewish state, a tour entitled, “In the Footsteps of Eli Cohen,” of the Golan Heights was designed by Century 21 Tour Company. The tour aims at tracing and capturing his moves in that part of our region while he was on assignment in Syria

Several days ago, I had the honor of joining Dr. Mordechai Kedar and Eli Sisco  on this tour. Any visit to the Golan Heights is always a unique adventure for me. Walking in the footsteps of Eli Cohen added yet another dimension to the experience. He was a hero to many, myself included

A Zionist, born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt to where his parents had fled from Syria, Cohen was first drawn into the intricate world of espionage indirectly. In 1955 he rented his place to a sabotage unit made of Jewish Egyptian citizens and recruited by Israel’s secret police. The set goal of this unit was to attempt to destroy Egyptian relationship with Western Powers. The unit bombed American and British installations expecting that this would be considered the work of Egyptians. Egyptian authorities uncovered the spy ring and after a trial, two of the group’s members received the death penalty. Though Cohen was arrested and interrogated, no link between him and the accused could be found.

That was the first mistake in the choice of him as a spy,” Dr. Kedar told us. “Cohen was already on the radar of the Arab world authorities and could be spotted more easily. “Another mistake, Kedar continued,” was that since his parents were originally from Aleppo, he spoke in a North Syrian accent, a fact that could raise some questions in Damascus

Before he moved to Damascus, Cohen had spent a year in Argentina where he cultivated a name to himself as a prosperous businessman and established contacts with politician and diplomats. These contacts helped him in befriending members of the leadership of the Ba’ath party, which would eventually take control of Syria

Through his social activities, the lavish parties that he threw and his generosity, Cohen, or more correctly, Kamal Amin Ta’abet, as he came to be known, gained the confidence and trust of many high ranking officials in the Syrian higher echelons. He freely provided his guests with alcohol and listened attentively to their conversations in which they shared confidential and sensitive information, as they let down their guards under the intoxicating influence of the alcohol. Rumors had it that some of his most  trusted friends included Amin al-Hafiz who later became Syria’s Prime minister. He would later radio transmit the information that he gathered to his superiors in Israel. They sometimes acted upon it immediately

And herein lied another mistake,” Dr. Kedar explained. “When in 1964, the Syrians planned to divert water from the Jordan River and the Kinneret, Israel’s main source of water, Cohen notified Israel. Following the disclosure, the Israeli air force bombed the equipment to be used in the diversion. That raised a red flag among many in Syria and suspicions of the presence of a mole

Eli Cohen himself felt the tightening and mounting suspicions among the Syrians high military command. During his last visit to Israel in 1964, he expressed his concerns to his superiors and asked to be taken off his assignment. He was instructed to go to Syria one more time. It was his last one.

With growing suspicions of intelligence leaks in their system, the Syrians with the help of Russian advisers and some sensitive intelligence-gathering equipment, were able to locate Cohen’s apartment as the precise site of the transmissions to Israel

Though, he was executed two years before the Six Day War, the information Eli Cohen gathered was instrumental in Israel’s capturing the Golan Heights from Syria. Since that war, Israel has transformed the Golan. With its breath taking scenery, the Golan has been blessed with fertile land which has produced some delectable wines and delicious fruit. Israel’s presence on the Golan has provided the well earned peace and security for many Israeli citizens who were under constant threat when the Syrians controlled it. With the raging war across the border in Syria, now more than ever it needs to remain in Israeli hands

Thank you, Eli Cohen. May your memory be blessed forever and ever

About the Author
Bat-Zion Susskind-Sacks is an English teacher and a pro Israel advocate. She lives in Israel and has recently published her first novel, "On A Wing From The Holy Land."